How improved support services are changing the lives of younger veterans

Ken Fayle on how the experiences of Vietnam veterans have reshaped support services for younger veterans such as Luke Douglass.

By Chris Sheedy

At a glance:

  • After serving in Vietnam, Ken Fayle found support first in counselling and later in the connections made at the City of Newcastle RSL sub-Branch.
  • Fayle, who is now president of the sub-Branch, is attracting new members by organising inclusive events for the community – not just “barbecues for the boys”.
  • Fellow veteran Luke Douglass says too many support services and programs are stumbled upon instead of being actively introduced to veterans.
  • They agree the ADF has done good work to build awareness about the counselling services that are available – but there’s still work to do.

Ken Fayle, Vietnam veteran and President of the City of Newcastle RSL sub-Branch, comes from a long line of ADF members. Both of his grandfathers served in World War I. His mother was a radio operator in Australia during World War II. His father spent those years in Papua New Guinea with the RAAF.

In Vietnam, Fayle served with the Royal Australian Engineers at the 1st Australian Logistical Support Group in Vung Tau. Having spent his time in the service at what he laughingly calls “the Bunnings of the Army”, he returned in 1971.

“Most of the things that take place in my life have taken place in Newcastle, so coming home for me wasn’t like being in Sydney, Brisbane or Melbourne, where you had the extremes of the anti-war sentiment,” says Fayle.

“We didn’t have marches through the streets or  servicepeople getting off boats and getting paint thrown on them. If I experienced any negativity at all, it was generally, and surprisingly, when it came to going into clubs.”

After two years of service, having a haircut “about level with the top of your ears”, Fayle and his mates let their hair grow. When they tried to enter certain clubs, including RSL clubs, it wasn’t unusual to be told they couldn’t come in because of their hair.

“That created a lot of angst,” he says. “What compounded that angst is that the sub-Branches who were generally attached to the club had an attitude of, ‘Well, we can’t stop you applying to become a member, but we really don’t want you, because you haven’t been to a real war’.”

Fayle spent several years working hard and drinking even harder. Then he met his wife and realised he had to work at settling down. One method was via counselling. Another was by being part of a group of people who understood the unique challenges suffered by some veterans. This group originally was not RSL NSW, but instead the Vietnam Legion of Veterans.

“We eventually took up the positions on the board of the RSL sub-Branch years later, and the rest is history. If it hadn’t been for that, the sub-Branch might have ended up having to amalgamate or fold.”

Today, RSL NSW is supporting all veterans via mergers with such bodies as the Australian Legion of Ex-Servicemen and Women, and welcomes amalgamations with other ESOs to secure their futures, as outlined in priority initiative 3.6 of the RSL NSW Strategic Plan 2021-26.

How Ken’s sub-Branch attracts younger veterans

Over the last 50 years, a great deal has changed in terms of veteran care, much of this change driven by the Vietnam experience. But there is always more to do, says Fayle.

The City of Newcastle sub-Branch has been growing furiously over the past few decades, offering their services to a younger generation of veterans as it looks towards a future that will include the constant development and improvement of veteran services.

“First, the rule in our sub-Branch is, everybody’s welcome regardless of gender or age,” says Fayle. “And when you walk through the front door, you leave your rank and your ego outside. You’re now just Bob, Chris or Sandra.

“Next, whenever we have functions, partners are always invited. That is not negotiable. There is no exclusivity and no misogyny. In some other areas, when they hold a dinner, it’s for members only, not for partners. But often the partner has lived with that veteran for the last 30–40 years. Show them respect and invite them to dinner!

“Finally, I often ask new members why they joined our sub-Branch, especially when they live closer to another one. Generally, the one thing they say is that they can see our sub-Branch doing something.

“We’ve helped grow a dawn service from 600 people in 1999 to 57,000 people, and broadcast on the ABC, in 2019. We built a memorial for war widows. We have the military wives choir in our hall to practise every month, and we bought them a beautiful Yamaha electronic piano for when they perform concerts. New members see we’re doing things for their community, not just organising barbecues for the boys.”

The modern-day veteran

Luke Douglass spent 13 years in the ADF, including the last few years helping members with physical and psychological injuries to integrate into the workforce and into civilian life.

When his own time came to transition out in February 2022, he knew he had to do as much as possible in preparation.

“Still, that didn’t really prepare me, to be honest,” says Douglass, who now runs
The Warrior Within Project.

“It prepared me for things like how to get a Medicare card and how to make an appointment with a doctor, simple things that people have to navigate day to day. But the deeper side, about identity and community, was not addressed.

“The ADF is doing the right thing. It has programs in place for people who are transitioning, and those programs offer a lot of help. I just don’t believe they’re marketed the right way.”

Too many programs, according to Douglass, are stumbled upon instead of being actively introduced to the veteran.

That’s why RSL Australia is sponsoring the development of the Veterans’ Catalogue app to empower veterans and their families to more easily access local services and support.

From a personal point of view, says Douglass, the DVA process has been “agonising”. But from a professional point of view, as he deals with the DVA to run his resilience and wellbeing program, the DVA experience has been excellent.

The needs of veterans have likely been the same throughout the ages, says Douglass. Those needs will vary dramatically from individual to individual. But as psychologists and others have improved their understanding of human behaviour, increasingly valuable and relevant services have been developed.

“In the past, we didn’t have the understanding of emotional intelligence … of being able to regulate your own emotion,” he says. “It was more about just getting over it. That’s why, most of the time, veterans who were struggling chose to reach for a bottle.”

The counselling offerings that have been developed and introduced since Vietnam, says Fayle, are vitally important.

“Since Vietnam, the ADF deserves credit for recognising that they have to do some form of counselling, and for developing those services,” he says.

“But there is still a stigma, from the highest general to the youngest private, that if they’re seen to be seeking counselling, they’re weak. And if they’re seen to be weak, they cannot progress their career within Defence. The opposite should be the case.”

The Vietnam War has left a lasting legacy that has inspired excellence in human behavioural knowledge and in veterans’ services, and will continue to do so.

“I’ve got a personal philosophy: I refuse to walk backwards into the future gazing longingly at the past,” says Fayle. “If we can all continue to look for improvement, we’ll succeed in our mission.”

A version of this article was published in the March issue of Reveille magazine.

RSL NSW welcomes veterans of any age to join the organisation. Access support services and become part of a like-minded community of peers – become a member of RSL NSW.